Video Game Commentary: PAX East 2019 — Day One

By Michael Costa

My first day at this year’s PAX East was generally disappointing, though there was some enjoyment to be had.

A player in action at PAX East. Photo: Michael Costa.

Each year, video games are at the heart of Boston’s Penny Arcade Expo (PAX). Though that’s not all PAX East offers, and it isn’t what brought me back this year (March 28-31). PAXgoers venture out of their homes once a year for a variety of activities: professional cosplay, paneled events, celebrity personalities, community gatherings, game tournaments, freebie giveaways, and of course, the chance to play something exclusive. And there was more people here than ever:  2018 was the first year the event spanned four days instead three. 2019 saw an increase in attendance, with tens of thousands of  and exhibitors.

This would be my third time attending,  yet it didn’t feel the same as before and it was just because of the increase of events, people, and activities. I was haunted by a sense of anxiousness and confusion. Maybe this was  because it would be my first PAX as a college graduate and a married man. But, underneath that. were political issues running through the U.S. the video game industry.

Why the fear and unease? The event took place just 14 days after the largest massacre in New Zealand’s history. Gamers and You Tubers (two demographics joined at the hip and essential attendees at PAX) were aware of the rise of shootings in America. Suffice it to say that, wading through the crowded hallways, alongside dozens of peers dressed in full-body riot gear and wielding fake-but-convincing assault weapons, was ironic. Is it any surprise that security was tight. What had previously been  loose arrangement of five or six staff members who would laughed and cracked jokes as they checked bags was now a team of high-stressed security personnel yelling at the back of the lines to ensure people were moving swiftly and smartly. The people manning the metal detectors  were no long grinning ticket-scanners; they were fully armed police officers with scowls and a drug-sniffing dog at the ready. Once inside, more police milled about.

The main expo-hall, which resembles a re-purposed airplane hangar, doesn’t open up until 10 a.m., though that didn’t stop people from arriving as early as 7 a.m.. The crew I was with (and most travel with a PAX crew) made it through the security at around 8 a.m. or so on Saturday, so we were let out with the first wave. Then it was a mad-dash to locate the big-name booths, and begin the hour-long waits to play the games. As a rule of thumb, the organizers generally keep the big money AAA-titles at the front-facing entrance, which finally opens after all the members of the queue make their way into the expo-hall.

The first of the booths I made it to was THQ Nordic’s, who were showing off Bio-mutant, a high-res, open world adventure/fighting game which comes across as a mixture of Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Absolver. and the Ratchet & Clank series.  The game, which has been at PAX in the past, appeared to have been polished up a bit this time around, spiffed up to emphasize the game’s strong fighting mechanics which would sets it apart.

On the way to the next booth I passed was turned out to be the most bombastic video game display I would see at this year’s PAX East. I looked in awe at that Days Gone’s booth: it showed off two ‘real-life ‘zombies (paid actors), a life-sized wax sculpture of the main protagonist along with a gargantuan bear, bleeding from the mouth and standing over the replica of a motorcycle. Yes, it was essentially a picture-taking opportunity for a game that was slated to be released in less than a month. But it showcases the flashy power of the larger companies in the industry and how they establish their presence.

I bypassed the zombies and checked out what Square Enix, a renowned names in both action and RPGs, was giving their fans. I ended up regretting my decision.

“Hey, that looks a lot like Metal Gear!” remarked two people. And they were right. Left Alive turned out to be a survival adventure game, tactical espionage its primary feature. If you have played any of the Metal Gear games before, you will recognize this genre. Left Alive follows (slavishly) in the footsteps of Metal Gear Solid, Armored Core, Ghost in the Shell, and Mobile Suit Gundam. This is essentially an attempt to revive the Metal Gear series, which ended when director and creator Hideo Kojima was forced out by the publishing company, Konami. Technically, the games are still being released through Konami, but a growing number of fans are becoming interested in Kojima’s newest solo project, Death Stranding, which features such celebrity performers as Guillermo Del Toro, Mads Mikkelsen, and even The Walking Dead’s own Norman Reedus. Tellingly, neither Kojima’s game, nor a potential one from Konami, was at PAX this year.

This put a lot of pressure on Left Alive to to deliver. I was able to catch a trailer or two before getting my hands on this game, and it looked phenomenal. The visuals are great, and the story looks dense and emotional, just like any of the Metal Gear titles. The narrative emphasizes developing the main characters along with shifting plot points and iconic gun battles. This excited me so much that I was surprised when the gamer I was watching play, gave up halfway through and handed me his controller. “I don’t even know what I’m doing. Want my spot?”  the guy said.   I hastily grabbed the controller, questioning the man’s patience. I hit gameplay and soon realized something was wrong: the game is awful. Not only could I not understand the basic controls, but I could not even comprehend what my mission was. I was in some sort of war zone with enemies a small distance in front of me. In most games, that means point and shoot — but apparently this was a stealth game. The game’s shooting and aiming was clunky and the terrible light effects distracted me from hitting my targets. I was also given an archaic cover system which was janky and irritatingly unintuitive. The game’s AI was brain dead; its only programming was to rush the player to shoot.

I heard someone behind me suggest throwing a bottle to distract the enemies’ attention. This was a decade-old cliche in stealth  (and most non-stealth) games. I was already bored. I had expected the gameplay graphics to be a bit of a drop-off because most Japanese-style games of this kind have significantly better graphics in their out-of-game footage than in-game. But what I saw here was ridiculous. The gameplay visuals appeared to have regressed two console generations — games on the original Xbox looked more put-together! After dying four or five times — because I pressed the wrong button — I decided to turn around and hand the controller to the next person waiting in line. “I don’t even know what I’m doing. Take my spot,” I said.

An overview of PAX East 2019. Photo: Michael Costa.

Given the displeasure served up by the AAA titles this year, I turned my attention to the reason that most gamers show up to PAX — the indie games. These small-scale productions serve up creative responses to the restrictions of time, experience, and budget. They are showcased by a small group (usually the development team) whose members stand and watch while you play their labor-of-love. It likely that any feedback a player gives may be used to revise the game —  if the criticism is warranted. These games usually fit into categories: pixelated and turn-based RPGs, gimmicky platformers, and deceptively fun couch-co-op experiences.

I started out strong with the latter. Fling to the Finish, a Kickstarter game made by SplitSide Games, gives the player half of the control in two squishy characters joined together by a string. The other half of the controls are handed to a buddy who must work with the other player to power through an obstacle course—all the while teaming up to jump, cling, and fling with their partner. It’s a neat and inventive idea, but the devs notched it up by allowing the player to compete with another pair on the show floor. Luckily, my PAX group had 4 total players at that moment (including myself), which gave us plenty of competing muscle. After plenty of yelling, stabs at coordination, and old-fashioned excitement, we made it to a photo-finish. When we ended the crowd behind us gasped — the developers beamed with satisfaction. We would later return for a rematch. The creators were so  grateful to present another entertaining match that they asked us if we could come back again so they could unlock level two and watch us play it. This opportunity would be an impossibility at any of the larger gaming companies’ booths.

Several indie-games later, my friends and I wandered around the Indie Mega Booth, an area smack dab in the middlemost section of the Expo Hall. Here we encountered an odd setup. In front of us stood a tall pole; attached to it was a light-up punching bag. Interested in the game, we asked a man in the booth what the display was about. He briefly explained that the game works like Dance Dance Revolution (DDR), a 1998 game where players must match on-screen button patterns with either an accompanying peripheral, or a controller. It was that t game — only play with a punching bag. Simplicity aside, a couple of my friends were intrigued so we elected to give it a try. Before we began, the developer came up and gave us iPhone devices. “You guys can try it out on these,” the man explained. Me and the group exchanged worried glances; we all came to the same conclusion. This is a phone game.

We ended up having an okay time throwing jabs at this hefty rubber stand, but there was nothing more to it. There are many, many other phone games that have for more depth and entertainment value than phone DDR. As for the game home release, the developers didn’t say if the punching bag device on the floor would be part of the package. The absurdity of the idea dawned on me. Who would want to purchase this ugly and cumbersome device and fit it into home?  I  wouldn’t. This was not the worst cash-grab I had seen at PAX East, it didn’t make much sense.

Disappointed, we probed the rest of the indie titles. There were gems such as Graveyard Keeper, where players try to manage a 2D graveyard with the game mechanics of a farming simulator.  The booth provided plenty of fun as well — players were placed in coffins. We held the game device over our heads while we played. Yes, it was silly, but the setup matched the tone of the game perfectly. Another surprise hit, though it came to PAX East with some buzz, was Simogo’s Sayonara Wild Hearts. The title boasts incredibly colorful and flashing visuals, a soundtrack that features a fast-paced synth-pop band, and includes a combination of racing, dancing, shooting, and slicing — all while the player is riding, at high- peed, on a motorcycle. The crowd loved this game;  there is little doubt it will be one of the Switch’s top releases of 2019. Other games worth mentioning: Devolver Digital’s Katana Zero and My Friend Pedro, Double Stallion Games’ Speed Brawl and, last but not least, NGD Studios’ Quantum League. The latter is a fresh-looking arena shooter which revolves around time manipulation and control over multiple characters.

Michael Costa holds a B.A. in English: Creative Writing, with a minor in History, from Lasell College. He is currently furthering his education at Emerson College, where he will be joining the M.F.A. Creative Writing program in Fall 2019. His creative resume includes: Managing Editor & Lead Designer for the Compendium Literary Arts Journal, contributor and editor for the Amalgam Digital record label, and contributor to the arts magazine, Tarnished.

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